Celebrating 10 Magical Years of ‘Fable 2’

James McMahon
Games Xbox
Games Xbox PC Gaming

For a period there, in my late twenties, I fell head over heels in love with Fable 2. Not a clumsy, “I’ll do a few dances for you, maybe a heroic pose, I’ll give you a ring, and then lead you to one of the many properties in Albion I own like the RPG land baron I have become” love. The proper “I can’t wait to get home to you” sort.

In my real life, I had an extreme anxiety disorder and a job that essentially saw me live in a magazine office. I was but a year or so into a mid-twenties relocation from the north to London, and I was painfully lonely.

In Fable 2, in Albion, people cooed as I ran past them in village squares and castle ruins, through the markets and past the docks. I had a dog. I’d never had a real dog. I always wanted one. And my dog loved me. Even when I’d forgotten to feed him and he’d taken too many hits from bandits and Hobbes, he always limped back to me, squeaking. Fable 2 made me feel better.

Sometimes people play videogames for reasons other than just to have fun.

A Home Away From Home

Fable 2 Serenity Farm
A welcome escape from life's humdrum routines.

I can think of many better games than Fable 2. More fulfilling games too. But I really can’t think of any games as loveable. I’d chance a bet that you can’t either. Sure, I enjoyed booting a chicken up the arse as much as the next hero, and I bloody loved a good crawl through a dungeon, but the love I had for Fable 2 always shone brightest in the village of Oakfield, the amber sun setting on my hero’s head after another day’s adventuring, as composer Russell Shaw’s achingly pretty score soundtracked mine and my hounds jogs (and jobs) around town.

In my real life, I lived in a bedsit that smelt of moss. The two rooms I rented rumbled whenever a bus drove by outside. In Fable 2, I lived in a place much like that I’d left behind up north. An England that was green and pastoral. There’d been brilliantly designed worlds in videogames before, and there’s been plenty since. But there’s been nothing like Fable 2’s Albion, a land where charm appeared to have been embedded into every line of the game’s code.

The course of love never runs smooth. Fable 2’s combat — one button serving the disciplines of melee, ranged attacks, and magic — was banal. The Crucible section of the game, right in the middle, is one of gaming’s all-time worst grinds. Albion isn’t really an open world, either, not like the GTA games are, or, say, Fallout 3 was — incidentally, a title released in October 2008 just a week after Lionhead‘s game. And, unless you set yourself the target of making it through the game without a scratch on you, it was an extremely easy ride. But all those things are reducing the game to mere semantics.

Telling Tall Tales

Fable II dog
'Fable II' treated animal lovers well.

Fable 2 was a game overflowing with ideas. It included moral decisions with genuine consequences — at times heart-breaking consequences — the type that David Cage still hasn’t come remotely close to ten years later.

It’s no exaggeration that Fable 2 was a game that shaped you; literally, you wore your wrongdoings on your skin, you went up and down in size depending on what you ate, it even karmically rewarded the player that didn’t eat meat. Unless you’re particularly fond of Balverines (or are a chicken), Fable 2 is maybe the most animal-friendly game ever made.

Not only that, but until someone develops Postman Simulator or a Greggs-themed RPG, there’s an argument that Fable 2 might be the most British videogame ever made too. Peg it across Albion and you’ll hear Geordie accents, West Country twang, variants from the Midlands and more, while the game’s humour owes its soul to British pop culture’s unique take on the worlds of fantasy and humour (and the Easter eggs within include affectionate nods to all accordingly).

A Brilliantly British Adventure

Fable 2, Black Knight achievement on Xbox
This Monty Python-inspired achievement is one of many British references found in the game.

The anarchic spirit of Monty Python looms large (pay attention to the several references to The Black Knight character from The Holy Grail). As does the fantastical world of Harry Potter (check out the Black Mark store in Bloodstone).

Then there’s the eccentric feel of Douglas Adam’s classic sci-fi tome, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the last artefact of The Archaeologist quest references the number ‘42’). It also meant wisecracking Scottish gargoyles. Yawing demon doors. Hollow men that disintegrated as your pistol pops their ancient frames.

peter molyneux in front of Fable promo image
Molyneux has been the subject of so much scrutiny that he no longer speaks to the press.

For the smart gamer, it’s impossible to think of Fable 2 without thinking of Peter Molyneux, founder of the now-shuttered Lionhead and lead designer on the game that celebrates its tenth birthday this year. Molyneux is a divisive figure in games. Almost a punchline at this point in history, sadly. Yet with a resume that includes pioneering God sims like Populous (1989), Syndicate (1993), Theme Park (1994), Dungeon Keeper (1997) as well as, under the Lionhead banner, Black & White 1 & 2 (2001/2005), it almost seems disrespectful to think of him so.

Much mirth directed at Molyneux concerns his habit of over exaggerating when talking about features in forthcoming games — he now refuses to talk to the press, so stung is he by the criticism of failing to deliver on promises. I’ve always felt such criticism is deeply unfair. Critiquing someone for being enthusiastic is a poor indictment of some elements of the gaming community. Criticising them for having ideas is a travesty.

Molyneux’s Finest Hour

Fable 2, Bowerstone, people gather while it snows
'Fable 2' captures the bedroom-hobby feel of older games.

The now 59-year-old designer is one of British video games’ great characters. It is his DNA that runs throughout Fable 2. Having a playthrough of the game in 2018 makes you yearn for the sense of innocence and wonder that has maybe been lost from gaming the more technical and sophisticated titles and systems have become.

Molyneux is of an age that means he’s navigated almost the entirety of gaming’s history. He’s seen the medium shift from bedroom hobby to billion-dollar industry. You get the sense he’s always been desperate to keep the spirit of the former no matter the rise in stakes. He’s always been out of step. His first game was a text-based simulator, self-released in 1984, called The Entrepreneur. “In those days you could literally call a game ‘Space Blob Attacks Mars’ and sell about 50 million copies,” he once said in an interview with Gamespot. ”So what did I do? I did a business simulation.” All of a sudden, the land baron element to Fable 2 makes a lot more sense.

Fable 3 screenshot, pirate dragging an NPC behind him by the face
Molyneux called 'Fable 3' a "train wreck."

News has it that Fable 4 is currently being developed by PlayGround Games, the people who brought you the jaw-droppingly brilliant Forza Horizon 4. It will have to be a special game to get the series back on track. The Fable franchise never bettered the second instalment. It’s been ten years now without a title worthy of the Fable name.

Molyneux himself branded the third game, released in 2010, “a train wreck,” and for once, there was little hyperbole. Molyneux left Lionhead in 2012, after finishing the similarly disappointing Kinect title, Fable: The Journey, and now heads up Guilford-based studio 22Cans.

The designer told IGN at the time of his departure, “In my mind, as a designer, whenever I’m making a game I have this perfect jewel in mind. Fable for me was this beautiful, incredible, amusing, funny, artistic, wonderful gem of a game that anyone could play, that tugged on the heartstrings, and that was instantly engaging.” This, in Molyneux’s own words, is the perfect description for Fable 2, but I’ll try a few more; the videogame equivalent of a comfort blanket, a binary hug — a game I have loved like few others.

James McMahon
James McMahon is a journalist from the north of England, though he currently lives in east London with his wife and Ramones records. He was formerly the editor of Kerrang! magazine for absolutely ages, and now writes for Vice, The Big Issue and The Observer. He likes Bigfoot, Xbox and crisps.